STREET POETRY IN THE 1960s

John Thomson

from Berkeley Daze

 


 
What can I say about Berkeley, San Francisco and the Bay Area in the 1960s? How to convey the giddy sense of infinite possibility that hung in the air? You didn't need pot, hash, or acid to get high. There was a feeling of weightlessness permeating the air. Every day was sunny, everybody smiled, students at UC Berkeley almost danced down the street on the way to class. The air was cleaner, purer, sweeter. The streets were litter- free—this is actually true. People didn't lock their doors, strangers began talking on a street corner and became life long friends, poets and musicians were everywhere, soon to reinvent the way America produced art and made music. Hair was getting longer, morals were getting looser, women were getting stronger, men were getting gentler, non-violence was the word, even as the police beat down anti-war and Civil Rights protesters. In 1964, I had just come out from New York City and couldn't believe how friendly, laid back and open my peers were. Everything was possible, love was all around us, the world was changing fast and my new student and political and street friends (soon to be called hippies) were making those changes happen. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) had started at UC Berkeley to protest the administration's attempts to clamp down on anti-war and Civil Rights organizations, and we all believed that concentrated, non-violent resistance to authority would win the day. Despite the assassination of President Kennedy, it seemed that all doors would soon open and the walls of corruption would crumble. America would see the light; we are, after all, an optimistic nation. We'd stop the war and hold out a healing hand to blacks, browns and Asians and turn the military machine into some kind of giant Peace Corps, helping to undo some of the damage we'd been doing for centuries. This all sounds impossibly naïve now, but if you were there, you know it's true. We were immature and unrealistic perhaps, but we had a faith in ourselves and in our country that could not be repressed. We went to the South and registered voters, we went to Africa and built dams and irrigation systems, we went to Canada so we wouldn't have to kill our fellow human beings, and we went out into the streets protesting, singing and dancing, knowing that it would take time, but confident that a change for the better was coming, something so big and holy and blissful that we'd astound the world and ourselves when it happened.

Cynics will say nothing happened. No revolution ever took place, but the women's movement, Gay Liberation, Black nationalism, psychedelic rock, protest music, and the ecology movement set in motion back then are still sending shock waves throughout America and the world. The things we did and said and sung and wrote reverberate through the years. The right wing is still afraid of us, kids are still fascinated by hippies and beats and sex and drugs and rock and roll, and anybody who has a heart knows there's nothing funny about peace, love and understanding.

STREET POET FACINO

One interesting side trip that came spinning out of this swirling vortex of creativity was the street poet phenomenon. I don't know if it started in Berkeley, but it was on the Berkeley campus that I met Facino (Doug Palmer).

"I am Facino. I am a poet. I will write you a poem for any useful item." The sign was on a piece of cardboard, hung around the neck of a gentle, sandy haired young man with a full beard and odd haircut that looked like someone had put a bowl on his head and chopped off everything they could reach with a not very sharp pair of scissors. The shaggy haircut looked like an inverted bird's nest, not the usual head of untamed long hair that many students and artists were starting to grow in 1965. The day was sunny, the air was clear, and the poet was sitting on the edge of the decorative fountain in the center of Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus known as Ludwig's Fountain. His khaki pants and work shirt made him look more like a construction worker than a poet. I walked over and sat down next to him.

A few feet away there was a young mother and her little girl. The mom was scooping up water in her cupped hand and then pouring it back into the fountain. The girl giggled with delight, then she'd stick her tiny fist into the water and try to grab a handful. When she opened her hand, nothing was there. She looked at her mother, who was pouring another cupped hand full of water back into the pond. The little girl grabbed again, making a serious face as she looked at her empty hand. She couldn't understand why she couldn't grab a handful of water. Facino started writing a poem about this incident and when he was finished, gave it to the mother. She read it, smiled, and gave him a few bucks and a big, warm smile. The little girl was still trying to grab the water.

I asked Facino if he made a living doing poetry. He said no, he had a day job, but it was important to take poetry to the streets, to get it out of libraries and into the lives of everyday people. To make every day, every experience, a poem, to be aware of the magic and beauty that's always there, all around us. The little moments we tend to ignore. (As Doug Palmer, he eventually edited an important anthology of 60s poets called Poems Read in the Spirit of Peace & Gladness.) I introduced myself to him. He smiled. "You're the fuck boy," he said, shaking my hand. "Pleased to meet you."

THE FUCK POEM

On March 3rd, 1965, I sat down on a planter on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Street. On a sheet of 11 " X 8" notebook paper folded in half, I had written the word FUCK. This led to the so-called Filthy Speech Movement, which wasn't a movement, or filthy, although it did point out some of the contradictions that are still plaguing the left to this day.

I've spent decades searching my brain trying to understand just what confluence of events, inner and outer, led me to produce my first "street poem," the legendary FUCK sign. Were the stars aligned in a particular way that caused a ray of invisible light to permeate my cortex and produce those four letters? Was my brain chemistry bubbling extra potent combinations of creative juices, or under-producing the elements that held impulsive behavior in check? Was I desperate for attention or crying out for help? Was I fed up with the seeming hypocrisy of both the establishment and the young politicos, who hoped to replace the system with something more benign and life affirming, but ultimately were just as cautious about unlimited free speech? Was it lack of sleep, lack of judgment, the calling of a higher (or maybe lower) power? Was it a prank, an aberration, an inspiration? Did I want to join the big FSM party in my own unique, slightly dissonant way? Or was it a burst of pure joy, the opening of doors long held shut by fear and insecurity?

I still can't say. Over the years, I've given people many explanations and rationalizations, but the truth is, my mind was blank as I wrote that poem/sign. I did feel the lack of love in the world that I later spoke about, but doesn't everybody? Does anyone feel content and loved the way they want/need to be loved? I was not unique in my lack of love, or my small suffering, which was nothing when compared to the battles over civil rights and the war in Vietnam that were raging, and pumping enough mad money into the economy to allow the students, beats and soon to come hippies the disposable income to pursue the dream of freedom without limits.

I felt no different that day, a slightly overcast day, than on any other as I sat down on the planter with a pen and a piece of paper I'd borrowed and wrote THE WORD in red ink. I sat there for hours, largely ignored. At one point a large blond man, I read him as a "frat boy," came by and tore up the sign and threatened me. "There are girls walking around here," he raged throwing the scraps of torn paper at me. I got another piece of paper and wrote another POEM. Mario Savio stopped by and pointed out that fuck, in American vernacular, could be a noun, verb, preposition, exclamation or adjective. I added (verb) in small print on the lower left of the sign. Then the frat boy came back with a cop and demanded that I be arrested for outraging the public morality, or disturbing the peace, or something. I surrendered my sign and myself and got arrested.

The flap that ensued has been written about and analyzed to death. Read David Goines' excellent The Free Speech Movement (10 Speed Press, Berkeley, 1993) for all the historical and hysterical background. I was convicted of public obscenity, lost an appeal to the US Supreme Court and served 30 days in jail. Art Goldberg, one of the few FSM politicos who supported me, and I are currently the last persons to ever serve time for obscenity in the United States.

STREET POET NEW YORK

The fuck flap was not an important event in my life, even though it looms large in the memory of many historians and politicians. I was nave and far from politically savvy. I was also more or less homeless, but in the 60s that didn't matter. If you were young and hip and a poet or musician, every door was open to you and a bed and a meal were not hard to find. As soon as I got out of jail on bail, pending the appeal to the Supreme Court that we eventually lost, I went back to New York City, which is where I started my career as a street poet. New York is harder, darker, and more dangerous than Berkeley, but that same aura of endless possibility was in the air, especially on the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, SoHo, and the campuses of Columbia University, CCNY and NYU. I thought Facino's approach to street poetry was a good idea, but I didn't do the street poet thing in Berkeley because I didn't want to step on Facino's toes and I was too inhibited. But after underground magazines in Berkeley had published me, I felt I was a real poet, so I took the plunge. In New York, being a street poet seemed preferable to panhandling so I made a sign:

I am poet.
I will write you a poem for any useful item, toothpaste, socks, notebooks, carrots, apples, the list went on and on in very small print. It ended with the parenthetical expression (money is an acceptable substitute for a useful item).

I hung the sign around my neck and hit the streets. I stood around the Fillmore East on Third Avenue, near the offices of the East Village Other newspaper, hung out at Washington Square Park and Central Park. On Sundays, Central Park was awash with hippies, blacks, Krishna chanters, poets, musicians, gawkers from the suburbs. I'd grown a mustache and attempted a beard, but I'm not a hairy person, so the beard looked sad and/or scary, depending on your perception. I went barefoot, even in the winter, and had pads on my feet. My jeans were colorfully patched for both decorative and practical reasons. I had little money and enjoyed sewing. I wore paisley shirts, or the most colorful hippie Hobbit shirt I could find and a rabbit fur vest. I had dark hair down to my shoulders. I bathed frequently, despite what the media was saying at the time about dirty hippies. I was clean and sober and didn't like pot. Everything I owned, including a growing collection of poems, fit in one small Army surplus knapsack. I had little money, but I was content and frequently happy. I had no grand plan for my life. I wanted to write songs and play guitar, but had no guitar and I was self-conscious about my voice, so I wrote poems. Lots and lots of poems. People would ask me to write a poem and I'd comply. Some liked them; some laughed and tossed them away, but most of them gave me something, usually money, from a dime to a few dollars, but often fruit, a can of soda, a sandwich, or a phone number and a place to stay. I had no fixed residence and never worried about where I was going to land next. The winds of karma always seemed to blow me in the right direction. Looking back, I realize I was incredibly lucky. I was never hippie bashed, arrested, hassled, hustled or taken advantage of. I never got any serious diseases. I met and loved many women and made many friends. One old man read the poem I wrote him and then asked if I had any objections to taking money from an arms dealer. His family made rifles for the US Army. He said he was assuming I was against the war, so he wanted me to have the option to refuse his money. I said we all have our own path to walk; if he wanted to give, I'd take. He gave me 20 dollars, the biggest tip I ever got for a poem.

STREET POEMS — NEW YORK, CAMBRIDGE, ANN ARBOR & BERKELEY

Freaks were everywhere. Black hippies, gay hippies, Puerto Rican hippies, old hippies, crazy hippies, Buddhist hippies, hippie families. Communal houses were springing up everywhere. Vets coming home from Vietnam joined the tribe. I met one of them, a guy named Jim, who wore an American flag decorated with his own blood, on the back of his fatigue jacket. He was living in his Ford Econoline van, and offered to drive me around the city in exchange for a poem. An artist I knew lived in a big apartment building on the Lower East Side. I thought he'd put us up. Turned out he was having problems with his wife, but he introduced us to the hippies next door who took us in. Billy Bob was an artist from Kentucky with long blond hair down to his waist. His buddy Harry worked a straight job somewhere. It was a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and two girls Anne and Susan - were already crashing there, but they made room for us on the floor. The girls had jobs at a dog-walking agency and told us that next door to the dog walkers there was an illegal moving service. If you had a truck, they'd hire you. Jim had a truck, so we went down the next day. They paid 25 dollars an hour per man, plus all your gas, to help people do small moving jobs. They told me I'd have to wear boots to work, so I borrowed a pair of Jim's combat boots. We moved a lot of stuff for the next two weeks and built up a stash of about 1,000 bucks between us. I'd always avoided hard work, but I enjoyed hefting impossibly heavy objects around the streets of New York. One job stands out. An air conditioner we had to pick up from a florist's shop and deliver to his girlfriend's apartment. The florist came with us, but refused to help lift the AC unit. We had to call the moving office and wait until they sent another guy to help. The girlfriend lived on the 5th floor of a walk up apartment building on the Lower West Side. The narrow staircase left us about an inch of clearance and the sucker was heavy. It took us all afternoon to get it up the five flights. When we got to the top floor, we had to take the apartment door off to get the unit into the house.

One afternoon, Jim asked me what I thought about Cambridge. I told him it was a college town, pretty laid back, and a good place for a street poet. He suggested we drive up and look it over. We went back to Billy Bob's to say goodbye and walked into a huge drama. Anne lost the keys to one of the fancy apartments where one of her dog-walking clients lived. The dog-walking office was closed, so she brought a pure bred Afghan hound home with her. When the matron who owned the dog didn't find the dog in her apartment, she called the police and sent them down to Billy Bob's apartment to arrest Anne for dognapping. Dog, Anne, Susan, Billy Bob, Harry and two police officers were in the hall outside Billy Bob's apartment screaming, crying and shouting. The dog was barking wildly and wouldn't let the cops come near him without growling and snapping. It took an hour to get things sorted out, and after the cops finally left with the dog, Anne and Susan asked if they could come to Cambridge with us. They were sure they were going to get arrested for dognapping. Jim said it was fine with him and the two girls and Jim and I piled into the van and drove to Cambridge.

We stayed in Cambridge for most of the summer, crashing with a woman named Marilyn. I spent a lot of my time on the streets around Cambridge Square, writing poems for useful items. The editor of the local underground paper wrote a story about me, including the fuck episode. He published a few poems of mine. For the next week or so I was famous and got better tips for my poems. Then I got a letter from my lawyer; I stayed in touch because of the appeal. The US Supreme Court turned me down and I was going to have to do 30 days for the FUCK sign. Jim said he'd drive me back to Berkeley.

On the way back to California, we stayed in Ann Arbor for a couple of days. I was writing poems on the street and was offered a place to stay by Jenny, a good-looking college girl. She'd just broken up with her boyfriend, she said, and was lonely. She let me bring Jim along to the communal house she lived in. The next morning, Jenny's ex appeared in her bedroom looking crushed. I quickly slipped into the bathroom fearing the worst. Jenny and her ex went downstairs and soon I heard the sounds of frenzied lovemaking. I found Jim and we got back on the road to Berkeley.

I did my 30 days for obscenity, Jim vanished the way people often did back then, and I went back on the street to write poems. On one of my last days as a street poet I ran into Marcus, a black militant I'd met in Cambridge. He used to ask me for a poem every day, but eventually got mad at me for riffing on the same subjects all the time. A young man had asked me for a poem and Marcus walked up and accosted my customer. "Don't give him your money man, he's a scam artist. You ask for a poem and then he writes down somethin' about you, or describes the way you walk and calls it a poem." I finished writing and said, "That's the poet's job, man. To call your attention to the magic of everyday life. To remind you that everything is poetry, everyone is a poem." I was paraphrasing what Facino had told me a year before. Marcus frowned and shook his head at me. Then he walked away.

[This story is online in the context of David Lance Goines' Growing Up in the 1960s, part 50 The Filthy Speech Movement]

http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=kt687004sg&doc.view=frames&chunk .id=d0e8112&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e353&brand=calisphere

 


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